Jim Souhan: Twins and Guardians face compressed pressure

Tribune Content Agency

The Twins, hamstrung by an obscure major league rule that limits them to no more than one Royce Lewis on the roster, lost to the Texas Rangers on Sunday.

The Twins then flew to Cleveland for the most important and dramatic series of the season.

From 5:10 p.m. Monday through late afternoon Wednesday, the Twins and Guardians will determine whether the American League Central Division competition is a two-team race or a Twins stroll.

Baseball is the only professional sport that can do this — provide nine hours of pivotal competition in less 72 hours.

Forget all that has preceded this series, all of the frustrations and injuries and losses to beatable teams, and appreciate the moment.

Cleveland’s manager, Terry Francona, is likely to retire at the end of this season and is headed to the Hall of Fame. This likely will be the last time the Twins see him in an opposing dugout.

The Twins will send their three best pitchers to the mound. Pablo López gets to justify the Luis Arraez trade Monday, Sonny Gray gets to highlight a remarkably efficient season and Joe Ryan gets to amend for hiding an injury and hurting his team earlier this season.

The Twins will also enter the series with their two most important relievers, Jhoan Duran and Caleb Thielbar, having rested Sunday, as did Griffin Jax, Emilio Pagán and Brent Headrick, who looked remarkably composed and effective Saturday night against the Rangers.

The Twins couldn’t have set up their pitching any better for this series had they been given a week off.

For all of the complaints about the current quality of the AL Central, the series will highlight the division’s two strongest organizations. The Guardians have won four of the last seven division titles, largely because of their ability to develop pitchers, and the Twins are trying to win three division titles in five years for the first time since the 2000s, when they won six in nine seasons.

Before that, no Twins team had ever won a division (or league) title three times in five seasons.

From 2011 through 2018, the Twins won zero division titles. Now they have a chance to make a sort of history.

They enter the series with a five-game lead with 25 games remaining.

If they sweep, the race is all but over. If they win two of three, the race is all but over. If they lose two of three, they will have a four-game lead with 22 games left, but they will have given Cleveland life.

If the Twins get swept, then every complaint about the 2023 Twins will be revived, and September will become an unnecessary scramble.

After the visit to Cleveland, the Twins’ schedule is as follows:

— Three at home against the disappointing New York Mets.

— Three at home against the excellent Tampa Bay Rays.

—Four at Chicago against the woeful White Sox.

— Three at Cincinnati against a similar contender with familiar faces in former Twins prospects Spencer Steer and Christian Encarnacion-Strand. (Steer is one of the Reds’ best players and has an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .811; Encarnacion-Strand’s OPS is .707.)

— Three at home against the disappointing Angels.

— Three at home against the woeful Athletics.

— Three at Colorado against the woeful Rockies.

That’s right: Thirteen of the Twins’ final 16 games are against lousy teams.

And for the first time in what seems like a decade, the Twins aren’t waiting on anyone. If Byron Buxton, Alex Kirilloff or Brock Stewart contribute in September, that will be seen as a bonus.

Lewis has emerged as their best and most important player, one who thrives in the clubhouse and in the clutch. He has by far the team’s best OPS, at .875, and on Sunday he hit a tying three-run home run in the fifth, scored in the seventh and delivered a tying RBI single in the eighth.

Quality pitching and Rolling Royce might be all the Twins need to win an eminently winnable division.